And here is your starter for ten...

My great passion is 'Countdown': it proves, Zen-like, that in life there is no right answer

WHAT HAPPENED to general knowledge? It used to exist, surely, along with a pretty clear sense of what did or did not constitute general knowledge. I remember, when at school, being ragged for being rather vague about the offside rule, and retorting sharply that we were all ignorant about some things; "I don't know a lot about footie, but then you," I said, "probably don't know the keys of Beethoven's piano sonatas in order. "That," came the serious reply, "is not general knowledge."

No, it probably isn't, I had to agree. "General knowledge" used to exist as a single entity 20 years ago. Now, it seems to be disappearing. What is taking its place is a knowledge which is fragmented and individual. It's a bit frightening; it looks a lot like ignorance.

One of the nice things about the writer's life is that you get to develop an intimate acquaintance with daytime TV. Years ago, whenever I was off school with a borderline cold, I always tried to stretch it till Thursday to discover how this week's Crown Court worked out. And now - God, the joy of it - I don't even have to drink Lucozade to put the telly on at eleven o'clock in the morning.

I understand that the programmes are better in the evenings, when most people look at it - or at any rate different. But why would anyone want anything better? The cheap shows working a makeover on anything from a mother of four to a chipboard trolley? That weird, laborious antiques show on Channel 5 where people swap their old tat for Channel 5's? The mesmerising adverts for more and more elaborate devices to enable the elderly to get in and out of the bath? Who could ask for anything more?

My great passion is Countdown, that inspiring, almost Zen-like witness to the fact that, in our lives, there is no right answer; you are given a jumble of letters, and do as best you can with them; you grow up, discover yourself to be Richard Whiteley, and do as best you can with that. Inspiring, as I say, but before Countdown is a much grimmer programme, 15-to-1. It is a general knowledge quiz; there is a right answer, which the glittering and menacing quiz-master holds, and wrong answers, one of which the contestants generally choose.

It's normally quite a dull affair. But what has made it rather interesting in the last couple of weeks is that it has turned its attention to sixth- formers, competing on behalf of their school. The questions are relentlessly Top of the Form: a few capitals of American states, a few semi-trick questions ("What is the chemical formula for ice?"), a few embarrassing-uncle questions about Kula Shaker and the Teletubbies.

But, my God, the things they don't know. Someone had no idea, couldn't even venture a name for the composer of Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte. Another thought, with every appearance of confidence, that the wife of William IV was Queen Victoria. A whole team had never heard of Lech Walesa, or Solidarity. I know, I know; it's a very stressful experience, and they are very young, after all, and it's more than likely that if William G Stewart shone a bright light in my eyes and asked me what the key of the Eroica symphony was, I would goggle gormlessly and then say "scorbutic acid", as the nation laughed. But there is a sense that general knowledge is ceasing to exist, that we all know different things.

One of the reasons is that we have lost confidence in the idea of a shared culture. There is a slightly uncomfortable aspect, these days, to watching a quizmaster ask a girl of Indian descent about Chaucer, knowing that he is not going to ask her neighbour who commissioned the Padshahnama.

All the same, that is a criticism of a particular notion of "general knowledge", and not of the concept of a loose, but shared, body of facts. It moves on from time to time, the terracotta warriors of the ancient Chinese registering on the communal mind, the arguments and analyses of CP Snow turning, almost overnight, into a specialised interest. We can argue, of course, about what "general knowledge" consists of, here and now - Solidarity but probably not La Lotta Continua - but about its value in general there ought to be no argument.

It looks a trivial exercise, but I don't think it is. I suspect that almost all intelligent people are pretty good at general knowledge. The retention and retrieval of cultural trivia is probably a fairly reliable guide to someone's general curiosity. Of course, there are occasional freaks who have no interest in anything outside set theory, but they are rarities. Me, if I were the admissions tutor for a university, I wouldn't bother interviewing; I'd just have a huge round of 15-to-1. And I certainly wouldn't let in the poor sap who thought Portugal was one of the Balearic Islands.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?